The Story: Emancipation

As news of the Union victory and the end of slavery spread from farm to farm across North Carolina, former slaves were faced with difficult choices. Some decided to move immediately, striking out for the northern states to begin new lives working in a variety of careers. Others stayed in North Carolina and made a living through farming, performing skilled work, or starting their own businesses.

"My life since the war has been the ordinary life of the average man of my race. I have not so many accomplishments to boast of, but I have done the best I could to prove myself worthy of being a free man. I came North shortly after the war and settled in New Haven, Connecticut. I secured a position as a coachman with a very estimable family, the Trowbridges. I worked for six years for Henry Trowbridge and then after his wife died I went to work for his brother, Thomas R. Trowbridge, for whom I worked for twenty-five years."

William Henry Singleton, New Bern, NC

A large number of ex-slaves continued working on the farms of their former masters. Some former slaveholders attempted to continue the system of exploitation that existed under slavery. Paul Cameron was one of the largest slave owners in North Carolina, and at one time there were more than 900 slaves working on his plantation at Stagville in Durham. Cameron hired many of his former slaves as workers on his plantation after the war. He initially drafted a contract stating the workers would be paid mainly in crops, could not receive visitors, and could not sell anything without his approval. Workers refused to sign such a contract, realizing that it would restrict their new freedoms and return them to a condition of near-slavery.

Many former slaves who remained in the South worked under the sharecropping system, where they paid rent to landowners to farm small plots of land. Unfortunately, this system was easily corrupted by landowners who charged exorbitant amounts for rent. Many sharecroppers became caught in a cycle of debt they could never pay back.